Unconvinced by electric vehicles? Wait until you get a load of Tesla's Model S. Andy Enright reports.
Ten Second Review
Here is an electric car with up to 300 miles range that can seat seven, has acceleration to demolish an Aston Martin and features zero tailpipe emissions. Here's what the future looks like and it's cause for celebration.
What do electric cars say to you? For the most part, they're rather inoffensive city scoots. Get one out on the open road and they're often only about half an hour from leaving you stranded on the hard shoulder with no juice. That's the way electric cars have been developed by big car companies. Tesla isn't a big car company. It has never been rooted in the culture of the internal combustion engine, so perhaps it's understandable that when it sets out to build an electric vehicle, things are a bit different.
Founded by Paypal creator, Elon Musk, Tesla has been committed from the word go to changing how we think about electric vehicles. The Model S may look like a relatively conventional luxury car but it's anything but. It's a car that has the power to fundamentally alter the status quo in this sector. Electric power isn't just for small cars. It works really well with big ones too.
What are the driving characteristics you'd look for in a big luxury car? I'd be looking for hushed refinement, a smooth step-off the line, instant acceleration as soon as you prod the throttle and the handling ability of a smaller car. The Tesla Model S delivers all of these things and more. Power comes courtesy of batteries developed by Pioneer which sit under the floor of the car, keeping the centre of gravity low, while the electric motor sits atop the rear axle. Customers choose between 60kWh, 85kWh and '85kWh Performance' versions. Even the 60kWh variant manages to whir to 62mph in just 5.9sec but the top '85kWh Performance' spec delivers devastating pace. There's an equivalent of 443lb ft of torque instantly available and peak power is rated at 416bhp. This translates to a 4.2sec sprint to 62mph, while top speed is perhaps the only area where the Tesla's found slightly lacking, topping out at 130mph. Refinement is excellent with a mere whisper of tyre and wind noise.
The 2.2-tonne kerb weight hints at a rather portly demeanour but the Model S handles a good deal more sharply than you might imagine. The steering can be switched between three settings - Comfort, Normal and Sport - changing the weight of feel but not markedly adjusting the level of feedback. Ride quality is better than you'd expect from a vehicle running on 21-inch wheels. Air suspension is standard on all but the entry-level version. As you'd expect from an EV, there's no gearbox as such, so power transfer is even smoother than the best automatic transmissions.
Design and Build
Tesla deliberately set out to style this car in a relatively conservative fashion so as not to alienate its core buyers. There's even a dummy air intake at the front. The car it most closely resembles in external dimension is a Porsche Panamera, but when you check the tape measure, you realise quite what a massive car this is. At 4978mm long, 1964mm wide and 1435mm high, it's 8mm longer, 33mm wider and 17mm taller than a Panamera, which is already a pretty sizeable hunk of automotive real estate. The width makes it feel a handful on narrow city streets but there's plenty of space inside.
The car is a comfortable five-seater and can even be configured into a seven seat mode thanks to a pair of the cleverest rear-facing occasional seats I've ever seen. They flip out of the boot floor and while they may only be good for small kids, it's a trick that few will see coming. With no internal combustion engine to package, the Model S has storage front and rear totalling a massive 895-litres. Fold the rear seats flat and you get 1,642-litres of luggage capacity. The dashboard is dominated by a monster 17-inch colour touch pad display that controls everything from the air-conditioning to the air suspension. Parts quality inside is extremely good although the eagle-eyed amongst you might well spot some Mercedes-Benz switchgear. Still, that's no bad thing.
Market and Model
Prices start at around £82,000, which might seem steepish but then you really can't compare the Model S directly with anything else. It's a bit of a one-off and therefore some will see its price as a bargain compared to a similarly-priced Panamera or a BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. Although it's new to the UK, it's been on sale in the US since 2011 and has racked up 21,000 sales globally since then. Tesla's bullish about the Model S success story snowballing and predicts 40,000 sales per year.
Equipment is also a tough one to compare, so focused is the Model S on its integrated touch-screen display. This includes an internet browser, internet radio, Google maps navigation, a high definition reversing camera and Bluetooth. The All Glass Panoramic Roof is constructed from lightweight safety glass. With a simple swipe of the touchscreen, it opens wider than any other sedan's panoramic roof. Other neat touches? How about the charging port that's hidden in the taillight. This pops open automatically as it detects the connector cable nearing it.
Cost of Ownership
Owning a Model S is different from conventionally powered vehicles. There's no petrol bill and service is minimal. The annual service fee covers an annual inspection, replacement parts like brake pads and windscreen wipers, 24 hour roadside assistance, system monitoring, remote diagnostics, software updates and new features sent through the touchscreen. It's possible to charge the battery half way in about 30 minutes using Tesla's 'supercharger' but as with most elements of this car, it requires a change in your way of thinking.
The car responds best to nightly recharges, but will happily sit for a couple of weeks at an airport while you holiday without losing significant charge and the battery pack has no 'memory effect'. Over longer stationary periods, the batteries will slowly lose their charge. If left at a 0% state of charge for period of time, you may need a battery replacement. The batteries are guaranteed for 8 years with a full replacement billed at $12,000 USD. Tesla offers two batteries, denoted by the kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy they store: 60 kWh and 85 kWh. Travelling at 55mph, the kWh figures can be translated to the stated range capabilities of 230 and 300 miles, respectively.
The Tesla Model S is a remarkable vehicle. It changes the way you'll view the whole concept of a motor car. As long as you are willing to alter your long-held preconceptions of what an automobile demands and, in turn, delivers, the Model S demonstrates that the genuinely practical electric vehicle has been achieved. Caveats are few. Yes, battery charging does require a little more thought than just topping up a tank and if a car is shared between a couple, for instance, you'll both need to be on the ball with it.
Other than that, it's a tour de force. The interior is adventurous, the packaging ingenious, the styling sleek and mature in its execution. It's searingly rapid, wonderfully refined and rides and handles well. If this is the future of cars, bring it on. The internal combustion engine has had a good innings and certainly has charisma, but the Tesla Model S opens a window to a better way.